As your child goes through his teenage years, you’ll probably watch them experiencing lots of new or heightened emotions. Read our article on the amazing teenage brain to help you understand what causes this overload of emotion and seeming lack of restraint or logic. Anger will be one of the emotions that you’re likely to see coming out more regularly, less logically and with more strength.
There are lots of symptoms of teenage anger, but these are some of the common ones. You may remember them yourself!
If teenagers are experiencing anger, they may try to escape it by:
Teenagers’ anger may be caused by something specific – such as friend or boyfriend/girlfriend problems or issues at school or home. Or it may stem from a more general feeling that they feel misunderstood by you or teachers.
Teenagers are heading into a very different world than childhood. They may be feeling confusion arising from puberty or sexuality, or may be dealing with effects from abuse from someone in their life.
There are a lot of things you can do as a parent to try to support and help an angry teen.
Steven Biddulph, the Australian child psychologist, suggests “side to side” talking with teenagers. This means getting yourself in a situation where you are side by side and not sitting face to face, which can feel confrontational. Try chatting while you’re sitting next to your teenager or in a car. Or standing in the kitchen preparing food. Or taking the dog for a walk – or just walking to the shops.
Ask lots of questions – try to understand the bigger picture. Don’t start by suggesting solutions to a “problem” you don’t know about yet. Listen – a lot – before you start trying to solve things. Make it very clear you are there to support them.
It’s a tricky conversation to start. Your teenager is likely to be defensive and may want to argue immediately or leave. Try to choose a time where you’re side to side, doing something, and you are calm. You will probably need to plan this time in advance. Don’t try to have the conversation when you’re arguing.
Here are a few starters that you might like to consider and make your own.
Your teenager may respond with anger or annoyance. When you’re working hard to be helpful, and you’re met with hostility, it’s tempting to strike back. Try to resist that impulse.
It might be your teenager appears not to listen or makes a point of telling you your advice isn’t needed or helpful. Or they may just stomp off. But then again they may listen, or may think about it later without telling you. Don’t expect thanks – just do your best to get your message of support across.
If your teenager is listening and willing to try things, you could suggest some simple mindfulness techniques. These can also be very helpful for you in dealing with your anger which may arise in reaction to that of your teenager’s. It’s really important that you keep your anger under control if you expect your teenager to try to reduce their own.
As a first step, you can both think about recognising the early stages of anger – for example, where teeth clench, shoulders tense, hearts pump faster, and so on. These things are useful signals that you are getting angry, and it may help you both to recognise the situation while it’s still in the early stages.
If you can do this, you and your teenager can start some simple mindfulness techniques such as counting breaths, feeling the weight of your body as you breathe in and out, listening quietly to your breath – or just tuning into the effects that the anger is having on your bodies and trying to work through it.
Teenagers don’t have the same fully developed mental equipment as an adult. Even though they can use long words and have intellectual debates, their brains are not as good as adults’ brains at regulating emotion.
Their amygdala’s which regulates emotions are relatively larger than the pre-frontal cortex, which controls them. Understanding this will help you see why your teenager can’t “just” pull themselves together in the way an adult can. Read our article on emotion coaching for teenagers for more practice advice.
Teenagers also struggle to read other people’s facial emotions and can sometimes jump to the wrong conclusions about other people’s feelings and motivations.
It will help if you ‘name to tame’ emotions when you talk to your teenager. So describe your feelings as a way to prevent misunderstandings and try to keep the lines of communications open.
If you feel talking to your teenager isn’t working, and you’re are concerned about their anger leading to other issues such as aggression, self-harm, isolation, depression or anxiety – it might be that you need to seek professional help.
You could consider talking to your family doctor and also speak in private to a supportive teacher at school as they may have dealt with these issues before and will guide you how to access other support or mental health services for young people.